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Colombian Government Begins Expedition to Remove ‘Incalculable Value’ Treasures from Legendary San Jose Shipwreck

Colombian Government Plans Expedition to Salvage “Holy Grail” Shipwreck

Colombia’s government has announced an expedition to remove items of “incalculable value” from the wreck of the legendary San Jose galleon, which sank in 1708. Laden with gold, silver, and emeralds estimated to be worth billions of dollars, the 316-year-old wreck has been the subject of controversy due to its archaeological and economic significance.

Culture Minister Juan David Correa has revealed that an underwater robot will be utilized to retrieve some of the treasures. The robot will extract items from the surface of the galleon to understand the potential methods to safely recover the rest of the bounty. The operation, which will cost more than $4.5 million, aims to avoid modifying or damaging the wreck.

The Spanish San Jose Galleon sunk in the Caribbean in 1708 after a battle with the British. (Credit: Samuel Scott)

The exact location of the expedition is being kept secret to safeguard the site from treasure hunters eager to exploit archaeological findings for personal gain. The shipwreck is considered one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in history.

The San Jose galleon, owned by the Spanish crown, was attacked and sunk by the British navy near Cartagena. Regrettably, only a few members of the crew survived out of the original 600-strong count, resulting in the everlasting notoriety of the ship’s untimely demise.

“As if we were in colonial times”

The galleon’s discovery ignited a struggle to determine rightful custody of its treasures. Spain proclaims ownership of the bounty due to its presence on a Spanish ship, while Bolivia’s Qhara Qhara nation argues that the treasures should be returned to them as Spain had coerced their people into mining the precious metals.

Colombian Rear-admiral Herman Ricardo Leon (L) and Colombian Director of Anthropologic and History Institute Alhena Caicido deliver a press conference at the Navy Museum in Cartagena, Colombia, on February 23, 2024. (Credit: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)

Current Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s government, seeking to reclaim ownership of the wreck and ensure its preservation within Colombia, has proposed utilizing the country’s resources for the salvage operation. This approach aims to move away from the view of the treasure as a source of contention reminiscent of the colonial era.

Spain’s ambassador to Colombia, Joaquin de Aristegui, has expressed willingness to offer a “bilateral agreement” on the protection of the watery grave.

Bolivia’s Indigenous people have also collaborated with Petro’s government and have now requested the return of a few select items from the ship for the sake of symbolism and spirituality. Samuel Flores, a prominent native leader, stated, “We just want our ancestors to be at peace.”

The salvage expedition takes place against the backdrop of an ongoing case at the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration between Colombia and the U.S.-based salvage company Sea Search Armada. The company claims that it discovered the wreck over 40 years ago and is seeking $10 billion, half of the ship’s estimated value today.

In June 2022, a remotely operated vehicle captured new images of the wreckage, including the best collection of gold ingots, coins, and an intact Chinese dinner service seen to date. The vehicle also revealed the presence of two other shipwrecks in the vicinity, including a schooner from approximately two centuries ago.


  • Colombia’s attempts to salvage world’s ‘holy grail’ shipwreck sparks treasure-bound tug-of-war. Retrieved from CBS News
  • Lost Spanish treasure Galleon San Jose finally discovered. Retrieved from CBS News
  • New video of 1708 Galleon Shipwreck San Jose off Colombia. Retrieved from CBS News

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